Festive rice parcels eaten in China honor of an imperial official who abhorred corruption are being given as increasingly elaborate gifts and favors, including to local officials, ahead of this year's Dragon Boat Festival.
What was once a homemade snack of sticky rice steamed in bamboo leaves with meat and bean fillings has burgeoned in recent years into a lucrative industry, with the most luxurious brands of "zongzi" being sold for several thousand yuan per pack.
China's Dragon Boat Festival, or the Duanwu Festival, which falls on Saturday, honors the drowning suicide in 278 BC of Qu Yuan, a loyal official of the Chu kingdom during the Warring States period (476-221 BC) whose advice was not heeded.
China's zongzi market has grown from nearly 3.5 billion yuan (U.S. $550 million) in 2009 to nearly four billion yuan ($630 million) by the end of 2010, with the luxury end alone worth as much as 1.2 billion yuan ($189 million), the Guangzhou Daily said.
A 'form of corruption'
"The prices for zongzi now reflect a different level in the social hierarchy," said Ma Xiaoming, a TV reporter in the northern province of Shaanxi. "Now, they are a luxury consumer item, and ordinary Chinese definitely can't afford them."
"Now, a lot of people who have gotten rich in a short space of time are giving them to their own friends and family, but also to keep up good relations with officials and to network," Ma said.
"They are a form of corruption in themselves," Ma said. "[It's about] inviting people to dinner, giving gifts, giving bribes, cozying up with people in power during festivals and new year."
"They [give gifts to] the people who approve proposals, administer public funds, and manage infrastructure projects," he said. "This is their opportunity."
A Beijing resident surnamed Zhang said many ordinary Chinese felt obliged to give them as gifts to local officials.
"You definitely give zongzi to officials," she said, adding that local people had hit out at the two main zongzi manufacturers in the nation's capital.
"They said they were collaborating [to force the prices up]," Zhang said. "The second factory then came out and explained that it wasn't selling zongzi for more than 1,000 yuan [U.S. $160]."
"How could you get such expensive zongzi? They must have other things inside them."
In southern China, the Guangzhou Daily newspaper reported on Friday that some zongzi gift packs were selling for as much as 2,888 yuan (U.S. $450).
The pack contained nine rice parcels, a pack of expensive cognac and a tin of top quality "longjing" tea, all in extravagant packaging.
Another gift pack contained nine zongzi in different flavors, a bottle of red wine, and highly prized seafood delicacies including fish stomach and dried scallops, the paper said.
Some work units had even organized group-buying plans to get good deals on zongzi ahead of this year's festival, it said.
Beijing University of Science and Technology professor Hu Xingdou said luxury gifts would continue to be used as a form of bribery among China's political and business elite unless political reforms were instituted.
"The crucial thing is whether or not there exists ... a way for ordinary people to evaluate officials, to vote for them and to supervise them," Hu said.
"Then, officials would naturally refuse to accept such luxury gifts."
"That is the only way to solve this problem," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.